Do you remember a night when you stood outdoors looking up at the stars, countless in the high, silent dome of the sky, and saw them as if for the first time? What happened?

Eugene O'Neill described his experience this way: "For a moment I lost myself--actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the...high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way." [You may have good reasons for not putting it that way, for not using the G-word, but in any case you have caught a glimpse of "something greater" than your limited self.] "For a second you see--and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning!"

Gratefulness is full awareness; thankfulness is thoughtfulness.

In the second that follows, you may hear your heart calling out, "Thank you, thank you!"--"to God, if you want to put it that way," or to no one in particular. But let us steady our focus on the second of gratefulness before thankfulness. Why do I call that wild joy of belonging "gratefulness?" Because it is our full appreciation of something altogether undeserved, utterly gratuitous--life, existence, ultimate belonging--and this is the literal meaning of grate-full-ness. In a moment of gratefulness, you do not discriminate. You fully accept the whole of this given universe, as you are fully one with the whole.

In the very next moment, when the fullness of gratitude overflows into thanksgiving, the oneness you were experiencing breaks up. Now you are beginning to think in terms of giver, gift, and receiver. Gratefulness turns into thankfulness. This is a different fullness. A moment ago you were fully aware; now you are thoughtful. Gratefulness is full awareness; thankfulness is thoughtfulness.

The thought pattern of giver, gift, and receiver does not have its origin under the starry sky, but in a social setting. Under the night sky, "I lost myself" in gratefulness. In my exchange with people, I find myself cultivating thankfulness. I receive kindness from a giver who in turn becomes receiver, when I return kind thanks. The gift exchanged is always kindness. There need not be any tangible gift; kindness alone will make me thankful. Barter is an exchange in kind; thankfulness, an exchange in kindness.

Kindness implies mutual belonging. The word itself makes us aware of this: Just as we like those who are like us, so we tend to be kind to our own kind. Even kindness to a stranger expresses some sort of kinship, some recognition that all human beings belong together. This awareness is only a mild ripple compared with the tidal wave that swept over me when I lost myself and realized that I belonged within something greater than my limited self. Yet, in every joy which kindness triggers, flashes a flicker of that wild joy of limitless belonging. After all, the kinship that shows itself in kindness is simply one particular instance of that cosmic kinship which unites me with all humans, animals, and plants, with the very stardust out of which all is made, and with its secret Source.

Since all gratitude celebrates belonging, we can understand the inclination of the human heart to project thankfulness back from social to cosmic belonging. But when we super-impose thankfulness on our primordial gratefulness, we have to be extremely careful not to press the conceptual framework of giver, gift, and recipient too far. Otherwise, we end up with a god who is just another person, and whose kindness is measured by the gifts we receive. This has landed not a few religious people into the trap of dualism, where they sit chewing on the old conundrum, How can God be kind, yet give us gifts which we cannot possibly recognize as tokens of kindness?

All gratitude celebrates belonging.

In your grateful moment under the starry sky, you do not experience yourself as separate from a giver who may or may not be kind, but seeing the secret you are the secret. At that moment of meaning, "the world is accepted," as Abraham Maslow, the psychology pioneer who coined the term, "peak experience." put it.

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